Under-18s: Reflections on the 2016-17 Season

In the immediate aftermath of the Under-18s’ 13-0 drubbing of Brighton in February – their win in more than 50 years – Jody Morris remarked, ‘imagine if we’d have had our shooting boots on today’, without a hint of sarcasm.

In setting the highest of standards for his youngsters, the academy product from West London who made the same journey his young charges are now embarking upon – all the way to the Champions League and beyond – provided the impetus for a record-breaking youth team campaign, and did so in style. Whilst the academy’s overall philosophy is the foundation that drives the day-to-day work on the training ground and in the classroom, each individual manager brings a touch of their own personality and experience to the mix and, this season, Morris’ influence was tangible from day one.

After that Brighton win, and after many a success, he was eager to point out that Chelsea will always create chances and score goals at this level, such is the depth and variety of talent at their disposal by comparison to every other club, but that it wasn’t enough to simply rely on that.

They needed to be more clinical, they needed to work harder, and they had to want it more. They had to exhibit all of the qualities required to make it in the world of professional football, on and off the pitch, and the message remained clear all season long. Early-morning punishment runs awaited the group after the changing room was left untidy. Changes were made on merit regardless of whether it was a league match at Cobham or an FA Youth Cup date under the floodlights at Stamford Bridge. From an adaptive playing style to asking everything and more of the players “because I know they’re capable of it”, says Morris, there was a tangible sense of reality around the group throughout.

How it benefitted them. Twelve new scholars came into a group that said goodbye to multiple Youth Cup winners, to the extraordinary goalscoring exploits of Tammy Abraham, to players who would spend the year playing at much higher levels, and initially at least it took some time to adjust. Their rock-solid home form eventually extended into a full two years without defeat – the longest such run in youth team history – but they had to wait until Bonfire Night in November to record their first victory away from Cobham.

4-2-3-1 became 4-diamond-2 and, in time, 3-4-3 would become the calling-card of a team that embarked upon a 26-match unbeaten run, reeled off twelve straight wins and seven consecutive clean sheets en route to clinching the Southern section title for a third year running, whilst cutting a swathe through the early rounds of the FA Youth Cup again. As eye-catching as the goalscoring exploits of Martell Taylor-Crossdale, Charlie Brown, Harvey St Clair et al always are, the increasing stinginess of a determined defensive unit marshalled by Richard Nartey or Marc Guehi, Reece James or Josh Grant, and backed up capably by Jamie Cumming or Jared Thompson in goal made Chelsea a formidable opponent at both ends of the pitch.

And it was no surprise that, under the tutelage of a former top-flight midfielder, the likes of Luke McCormick, Conor Gallagher, Tariq Uwakwe and Jacob Maddox provided the heart and soul in the middle of the park. They set the tone, they carried the charge, and they were all rewarded handsomely; McCormick with a hard-earned professional contract having initially been overlooked for a scholarship, Gallagher with the academy’s Scholar of the Year award, Uwakwe with a first England call-up, and Maddox with another FA Youth Cup winners’ medal to add to his burgeoning collection.

For the third time in as many years, Manchester City provided the opposition in the Youth Cup Final; the country’s two leading academies somehow avoiding each other along the way yet again. With Jadon Sancho, Phil Foden, Brahim Diaz, Lukas Nmecha and an unbeaten run stretching well back into their Under-16 campaign, this was supposed to be City’s best chance yet of finally getting one over on the Blues, but instead they were blown away by a rampant Chelsea, 5-1 in the second leg, 6-2 on aggregate, with as wide a chasm between the two as there had been in any of their previous meetings. Tottenham, who along with the finalists are seen by those in the industry as being amongst the leading lights in the academy game, were beaten even more emphatically in the Semi Finals; a 7-1 mauling at the Bridge sealing a 9-2 aggregate victory.

Watching Chelsea winning these big matches is old hat to a lot of occasional youth football viewers. They’ve seen it before. The script remains the same, and they’re quick to point out that ‘none of them will play for the first team’, or that they’re simply physically superior, prioritising winning over long-term development. They look at the imposing Trevoh Chalobah or the rugged Dujon Sterling and conclude that the Blues are just picking the biggest and best.

This stuff matters. Winning matters. Certainly, it becomes more important with every rung of the ladder climbed, and part of the Professional Development Phase – which these players begin at the start of their scholarships – is, quite simply named, Learning to Win. Morris was unabashed in his desire to win everything available to him; Lee Carsley in the Man City dugout was equally as clear in his intentions before the final, telling the club’s official website that “the players set the target in pre-season of reaching the final but we want to go to the next stage, the most important one, and win it.”

Talking about physical development in academy football has almost become taboo over the past decade, a dirty subject rooted in the overwhelming desire to imitate the all-conquering Barcelona and Spain teams that so supremely left their marks on the sport’s history with some of the finest football ever played. Suddenly, everyone wants to unearth the next Xavi, the next Iniesta, or the next Messi, focusing all of their attentions on the previously overlooked smaller kid, the late bloomer, and not the big kid who immediately catches the eye.

Yet in rushing to be ahead of the pack in doing so, the balance has shifted almost entirely in the opposite direction, creating much the same problem only in reverse. Balance is always key, and Chelsea have always been able to find the right mix of technical excellence and physical prowess required to have a career in the game. Academy Manager Neil Bath once explained it was their policy to reflect that if a prospect lacked in either area, they would find it hard to progress at the club. A player with exceptional physical traits but limited footballing ones, he said, would instead be encouraged to pursue a career in athletics, as former full-back and now-Team GB Olympic sprinter Adam Gemili has done to great success.

Development is an inexact science for a great many reasons, but above all else, academies have to have a vision of the type of player they want to bring through at the end of the journey. Producing a Xavi or an Iniesta or a Messi might work in Spain, and it might have some success in the UK, but playing in the Premier League comes with its own specific requirements. Over the past ten years, top-flight players in England have seen a 50% increase in their total actions during a match, an 80% increase in their total sprints, and a 30%+ increase in their sprinting and high-intensity running distance (all information from the International Journal of Sports Medicine, November 2014).

There are physical demands here that simply do not exist in other top European leagues, and every academy is responsible for ensuring that they prepare their players accordingly in order to give them the best chance of breaking through. That’s not to say that the smaller, slighter hopeful stands no chance – far from it – but they have to compete, they have to want to work twice as hard, and they have to figure out how they can win against bigger opponents.

Morris did that when coming through the ranks at Chelsea twenty years ago, and he’s returned to pass on those lessons to the next generation. For every Chalobah or Sterling there’s a Mason Mount, a George McEachran or a Tariq Lamptey, and there’s simply no way even the most casual of observers could take one look at a Callum Hudson-Odoi, a Juan Castillo, or an Iké Ugbo and not come away enthused at the way they effortlessly combine a natural comfort with the ball at their feet with the robustness to handle themselves in a battle.

2016-17 was an historic season on the pitch for the Under-18s. They scored freely, they kept the door closed at the other end, and they out-worked their opponents to leave no room for error, to leave no excuses. They were rewarded with a first-ever domestic treble, but the journey continues. Youth team success opens the door to earning Development Squad opportunities, which will, in time, give way to a loan spell or another path into adult football, with the dream of turning out for the Chelsea first team burning bright for every player at the club.

Expecting players to leap from training ground football on Saturday mornings to stadium football on Saturday afternoons is misguided, no matter how many post-Youth Cup think-pieces might be written about how Chelsea’s academy is apparently failing. Better pathways undeniably are needed, not just at Stamford Bridge, but at every club, but don’t criticise the Blues for wanting to be the best at every level, for wanting to win, for every player wanting to be the one to break through. If that dream doesn’t even exist, then everyone with an interest in the game might as well pack up their bags and go home.